Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Al-Nassr after his exit from Manchester United garnered a fair amount of attention. That wasn’t because of the very fact that it happened, but because of why it had happened. There was talk about soft power, about Mohammed bin Salman’s influence in the move, and questions were raised about the financial packages involved for the Portuguese star as part of the transfer.
With about two months having passed since Ronaldo joined the club, things are now becoming much clearer.
While ulterior motives and side plots can certainly be spoken about and focused on, Ronaldo’s move has somewhat put football in Saudi Arabia on the map in the global arena. That may be just one of the many reasons behind why the move initially came about, but so far the purpose seems to be meeting the goal.
The Saudi Pro League (SPL) has never had global broadcasters since its inception in 1976; football, unlike the Western world, is still a young sport in the country. A lot of sports in the country are young, in fact, largely because of the fact that modern Saudi Arabia was formed as recently as 1932.
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This season is the first time in its history that the SPL is being broadcast regularly to faraway shores. Saudi Sports Company (SSC), the state-controlled sports media company, did reach an agreement to broadcast the league in the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) region last year, but the reach, as hinted, was largely limited. Post Ronaldo’s arrival, however, prominent sports management agency International Management Group (IMG), which negotiates massive sporting deals across the globe, reached upon agreements with 36 global broadcasters to telecast the SPL across the world. The league itself signed an agreement with Portuguese broadcaster Sport TV, allowing fans in Portugal to watch CR7 play.
The IMG agreements have seen SPL broadcasting deals with the likes of SportItalia in Italy, RMC in France, and Sportdigital Fussball in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, with Al-Nassr games having been regularly live also on India’s Sony Sports Network and England’s Sky Sports — something that was unheard of not too long ago. All of this has put the country’s football on the map, which matters way more than revenue itself and helps build something much bigger.
Because of Ronaldo’s presence, Al-Nassr’s Instagram following has boomed, which was always going to be the case considering he is one of the most-followed stars on the planet. From being at 853,000 before the signing, it went up to above 10 million in about a month, currently standing at 13.7 million. Apart from their Twitter following witnessing a massive boost, Al-Nassr’s average interactions on the platform have also had a huge increase. Their average likes per day currently stand at a little above 2,000, which is quite higher than how things were only last year.
Numbers are only a concrete pointer to the growth of the club, but there are clear signs of what is to come. Players such as Luka Modrić and Sergio Busquets have been linked with a move to Al-Nassr as well, with the club having also been linked with a move for Marcelo not too long ago. Whether those players join the club or not is a different matter altogether, but the links at least highlight the fact that Ronaldo’s presence has brought about a short-term boost for Al-Nassr and the Saudi league’s brand.
This is not too dissimilar from what Pelé’s arrival did for the New York Cosmos and US football back in 1975. The media profile of the Cosmos and the North American Soccer League (NASL)—the league they played in at the time—increased countrywide, and even though social media didn’t exist back then, attendances at NASL games increased significantly.
Pelé’s arrival led to the league attracting other global stars such as George Best, Franz Beckenbauer and Bobby Moore. Something similar can happen with the SPL, though it is important to keep in mind that the superstars arriving in the near future may very likely be in the twilight of their respective careers as well.
There has also been talk of Ronaldo taking over an ambassadorial role with the Saudi government, and while that has been dismissed, there have been signs of the Portuguese being used as a means to put forward Saudi culture. Ronaldo recently took part in celebrations involving Saudi’s founding day, adding an extra layer of legitimation to the country’s foundations and name — potentially hinting at a sign of things to come.
It is a model that has been followed in the past and will be followed by many in the future as well, as football continues to become global. Moves like these provide a short-term boost and help establish the foundations for the game in a country.